This Chance Planet

Elizabeth Bear


We are alone, absolutely alone on this chance planet: and, amid all the forms of life that surround us, not one, excepting the dog, has made an alliance with us.

— Maurice Maeterlinck

“It’s not like I’d be selling my own liver.” Ilya held casually to a cracked strap, swaying with the motion of the Metro. “Petra Ivanovna. Are you listening to me?”

“Sorry,” I said.

I’d been trading stares with a Metro dog. My feet were killing me in heels I should have stuffed into my sometimes bag, and the dog was curled up tight as a croissant on the brown vinyl of the only available seat. I narrowed my eyes at it; it huffed pleasantly and covered its nose with its tail.

Ilya kept on jawing. It was in one ear and out the other, whatever he was yammering about, while I gave the dog wormhole eyes and plotted how to get the seat away. The dog was a medium-large ovcharka mutt, prick-eared, filthy under a wolf’s pelt with big stinking mats dangling from its furry bloomers. It was as skinny as any other street dog under its fur—as skinny as me—but the belly seemed stretched—malnutrition? Worms? When it lifted its head up and let its tongue loll, the teeth were sharp and white.

Behind its head, a flickering advertisement suggested that volunteers were needed for clinical trials, each of which paid close to a month’s grocery money. It alternated with one urging healthy young (read: skint) men and women to sell their genetic material to help childless older (read: wealthy) couples conceive. Pity those skinny jeans were probably destroying Ilya’s fertility as we spoke.

I snorted, but that ad faded into one reminding me that it wasn’t too late to enroll for fall classes.

Well, if I had the damned money, I would have enrolled for summer classes, too. I had my bachelor’s, but that was useless in Moscow, and to get the specialist degree took money. Money I didn’t have. Wouldn’t have, unless Ilya started contributing more.

I looked away, and accidentally caught the thread of Ilya’s conversation again. His latest get rich quick scheme. It was always a get rich quick scheme with Ilya. This one involved getting paid to incubate somebody else’s liver. In his gut. Next to his own liver, I guessed?

I imagined him bloating up, puffing out like an old man whose insides had given up from too much bathtub liquor. Like a pregnant woman. I wondered if his ankles would swell.

I punched his arm. “Like an alien!”

Visions of chestbursters danced in my head. I played the whole VR through last year with my friend GreyGamine, who lives in Kitchener, which is in Canada somewhere.

We got killed back a lot.

Ilya scoffed. It was a very practiced scoff, nuanced and complex. He used it a lot. The Palm d’Or for scoffing goes to Ilya Ramonovich.

“How’s it different from growing a baby?” he asked me, sliding an arm around my hips. His leather jacket—scarred, stiff, cracked—creaked. I tried not to think about how it was probably too old to have been decanted, and that it had probably started life wrapped around an actual cow. “You want to have a baby someday, don’t you?”

We couldn’t afford a baby. I couldn’t afford a baby. Either the money or the time, until I finished my degree.

The strap of his electric guitar case slid down his shoulder. The case swung around and banged my ribs. He gave my hip a squeeze. He smelled fantastic: warm leather and warm man. It didn’t make my shoes hurt less.

Well, I was the idiot who wore them.

“Having a baby is hardly the same thing as organ farming.” I don’t know why I argued.

Actually, I do know why I argued. When you stop arguing, you’ve given up. I looked at the way Ilya’s black hair fell across his forehead and tried to enjoy it. Like Elvis Presley. Or any given Ramone. That tall guy from Objekt 775.

Skinny jeans were back again.

“Well, for one thing,” he said, “growing a liver takes less than nine months. And they pay you for it. With a baby, you have to pay. And pay, and pay.”

Despite myself, I was getting intrigued. Half-remembered biology classes tickled me with questions. “Wouldn’t you reject it? Or wouldn’t you have to take all kinds of immunosuppressing drugs?”

“They use fat cells. And—I don’t know, shock them or something. To turn them back into stem cells. Then they train them to grow into whatever they want. Whatever the rich bastard they’re growing it for has killed off with his rich living. Liver. Lungs. Pancreas.” He shrugged. “All you’ve got to do is provide the oxygen and the blood supply.”

“And not drink,” I reminded. “No drugs. I bet they won’t even want you taking aspirin. Coffee. Vodka. Nothing.”

“Just like a baby,” he agreed.

I should have been suspicious then. He was being much, much too agreeable. But I had gotten distracted by the way that fringe of hair moved across his pale forehead. And the little crinkles of his frown, the way the motion pulled the tip of his nose downward.

We were coming up on my stop. Soon, I would get off and walk to my job. Ilya would continue on to his “band” practice: with “Blak Boxx,” his “band.” Which was more or less an excuse to hang out with three of his closest frenemies drinking and playing the same five chords in ragged 4/4 time.

You know which five chords I mean, too: nothing more complicated than a D major.

Fortunately for “Blak Boxx,” most of rock and roll is built on the foundation of those five chords. Unfortunately for “Blak Boxx,” to play live music you still need to be able to change between them without looking at your hands.

I didn’t feel like having an argument with Ilya about who was paying the rent this month, again. And at least he was talking about something that might make money, no matter how harebrained. I should try to encourage this line of thinking. So as the train squealed into the station, rather than picking a fight about money, I just edged him away with an elbow and stepped back.

He put a hand on my shoulder, which might even have been to steady me. I think I probably glared at him, because he took it back very carefully.

“Think about it?” he said.

Suddenly, the whole conversation took on that slightly surreal gloss things have when you realize you’ve been looking at the picture from the wrong angle, and what you took for a vase full of flowers is actually an old woman with a crooked nose.

“We were talking about you,” I said.

The train lurched and shook as it braked harder. I stumbled, but caught myself on the handrail over the dog.

“Me? I can’t look fat!” he said—loud enough that heads turned toward us. “I have to be ready to get on stage!”

“I’m sure a lumpy cocktail waitress will make great tips,” I shot back. “And who is it that is already keeping the roof over our heads?”

It turned out I got off before the dog. I guess it deserved the seat, then: it had the longer commute. It whined and gave me a soulful look as I brushed past. I had nothing in my bag except a hoarded bar of good chocolate, which was poison to dogs. And even if it hadn’t been, I wasn’t going to let Ilya find out about it. Decent chocolate was becoming less a luxury and more of a complete rarity. And what I could make last for two weeks of careful rationing, Ilya would eat in five minutes and be pissed off I hadn’t had more.

“Sorry,” I told the dog. “The cupboard’s bare.”

I stepped from the dingy, battered Metro car to the creamy marble and friezes of Novokuznetskaya Station. The doors whisked shut behind me.

Christ what am I doing with my life?

* * *

Ten hours cocktail waitressing in those shoes, getting my ass pinched, and explaining drink specials to assholes when they could have picked the information off the intranet with a flick of their attention, didn’t make my feet hurt any less or do much to improve my attitude. I rode home on a nearly-empty train, wishing I had the money to skin out the two other passengers and the ongoing yammer of the ads.

It’s not safe to filter out too much reality when you’re traveling alone at night. But the desire is still there.

No dogs this time.

The elevator to our flat was out of order again. I finally pulled those shoes off and walked up five flights of gritty piss-smelling stairs barefoot, swearing to myself with every step that if Ilya was passed out drunk on the couch, I was carrying every pair of skinny black jeans and his beloved harness boots out into the courtyard and setting it all on fire. And then I was going to dance around the blaze barefoot, shaking my tangled hair like a maenad. Like a witch.

This is how women sometimes turn into witches. We come home from work one day too many to discover our partners curled up on the couch like leeches in a nice warm tank, and we decide it’s better to take up with a hut with chicken legs.

A good chicken-legged hut will never disappoint you.

But when I got home, there was hot food on the stove, plates on the coffee table, and a foot massage.

I bet a chicken-legged hut doesn’t give a very good foot massage. And they sure as hell don’t cook. Even lentils and kasha. Still it was good lentils and kasha, with garlic in it. And onions. And I hadn’t been the one to cook it.

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